Exclusive Interview with Calistus Igwilo – President, Atheist Society of Nigeria

Calistus Igwilo is the President of the Atheist Society of Nigeria, who was kind enough to give an extensive, exclusive interview with me. Here we talk about religious faith, atheism, and religion in Nigeria.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Was there a family grounding in religious faith?

Calistus IgwiloI was baptized a Catholic, couple of months after my birth, and was raised a Catholic until about age 13 when I joined my mum to attend a prayer ministry (Where they purport to see the vision and predict the future). And I eventually became a “visioner” at about age 15. Then about age 20, I became a “born again” Christian and was supposed to live above sin, to be holy even as Christ was holy, so I sincerely and honestly struggled to live above sin, I didn’t watch television at the time because I could see a sensual advert that will make me lust in my heart thereby committing sin. Prior to being born again, I masturbated a lot, but as a born again I tried very hard to resist masturbation and struggled for about 1 year until I lost it. So it dawned on me that I was a “sinner” and numerous attempt to repent proved abortive as those desires were real, therefore, I stopped going to church in other not to be a hypocrite. And when I accepted life the way it really was, I started to have doubts about religion but I was alone on that thought, there was no like minded person to share my doubts with.

Later, when I became independent and started living by myself, I asked myself some crucial questions: “all the things I know so far, who thought me?” My answer was mainly my parents, then I asked, “Who thought my parents” the answer was my grandparents. Then I asked the crucial question “What do these grand and great grandparents know? Are my not supposed to know more than them, since they did not have the level of education I have?” And that was how my journey into skepticism started, I resolved to reevaluate everything that I have been thought by my parents and choose for myself only things that made sense and conform to the knowledge I had gained thus far. I began to think for myself, I became responsible for my life and my actions, then I realized that the whole religious stuff lacks logical merit.

About that period, I met my first business partner Leoard F. Runyon Jr. who we formed a computer company together. He lived life the way life was without any recourse to a supernatural being or superstitions. We never discussed religion or talked about atheism, I do not know about atheism at the time, but for the first time in my life, I associated with people that live their lives very plainly without invoking God or religion for any task, they depend on their brain to make decisions. At that point, religion became irrelevant in my life and any thought of returning to it someday vanished. After few more years, I started looking for Nigerians like me, I couldn’t see any around me, so I took to the internet to search for Nigerian Atheists. Leo Igwe’s name was the prominent name that pops up each time I searched so  I did him an email which he replied and informed me about an upcoming humanist convention in 2011 at Abuja. I attended that conference and met for the first time, Nigerian atheists, and that was the beginning of my association with atheists.

Jacobsen: Who were some influences in losing it or simply becoming an atheist?

Igwilo: The first influence was my personal experience. I have always tried to be sincere and honest to myself, so when I started struggling to keep up with religious teachings, I knew somehow that they weren’t tenable, then I became a “backslider” and because I don’t want to deceive myself claiming to be what is not tenable, I gave up on religion. The next influence was Leonard F. Runyon, my business partner, in whom I saw for the first time in my life how someone can live one’s life without the need for a God. Then when I a degree course in Biotechnology, everything fell into place, I had a rational explanation for the emergence of life and I applied that knowledge to every other supernatural belief. Life ceased to be mysterious to me and I never looked back since then. There was nothing to look back for anyway because I have traveled the road of religion and have studied the bible from page to page from cover to cover so there was nothing curious left there to go back to.

Jacobsen: What is the prevalence religion in Nigeria? What are the types that you’d typically find there?

Igwilo: The prevalent religions in Nigeria are Islam and Christianity, the traditional religion is steadily going extinct. Majority of northern Nigeria are Muslims while the majority of Eastern Nigeria are Christians, the western Nigeria are split between Muslims and Christians. So each region is dominated by their own common religion (Christian or Muslim) and they tolerate each other to a good extent except for some small part of northern Nigeria where sectarian crises arise once in a while.

Jacobsen: Why did you found the Atheist Society of Nigeria?

Igwilo: While I was doing my masters degree at the University of Nottingham, UK, I joined the University of Nottingham Atheists Secularists and Humanist (UNASH) association, it was my first experience of belonging to an atheist group, I also joined the Nottingham Secular Society an umbrella body for atheists and humanists living in Nottingham. I was elected to serve on the executive committee and was closely mentored by Dennis, the then President of Nottingham Secular Society and I gained some experience in running a secular society. So when I returned to Nigeria in 2013, I started Port Harcourt Secular Society with Timothy Hatcher under the suggestion of Becca Schwartz. The main reason was to create a community for Atheist, Humanist, Secularists and Freethinkers. By then there was a vibrant Nigerian Atheist group and Nigerian Humanist group on Facebook which serves as home for all atheists, humanists, and freethinkers. The need to organize so that we can engage with government, institutions, and societies led to us applying to be registered with Corporate Affairs Commission (CAC), but our application suffered numerous setbacks, when we got some kind of nod to go ahead, we didn’t have the fund to see the process through as Port Harcourt Secular Society had very few members then. So we organized at the national level to register Humanist Society of Nigeria but it suffered a huge setback from the CAC, they always come up with a reason to have us start the application all over again, it’s been up to 2 years now and Nigerian Humanist Association hasn’t been incorporated. While at it, some group of Atheists who belong to a Facebook group called Proudly Atheist made a move, and quietly got initial approval after their lawyer threatened to sue CAC, so we rallied around the process and finally got it registered. This has given us the backing of the law, to engage our community.

Jacobsen: How momentous is the occasion of ASN registration?

Igwilo:  Well, the day the news broke that we have been incorporated, it was in the evening, I was just speechless, I couldn’t describe what I felt, and it was the same for other 9 members of the board of trustees. But very quickly, it dawned on me that we have achieved something very great something capable of making a positive lasting change to Nigeria and I could see the enormous task ahead of us. I still don’t have words to describe the feeling that night, but that sense of accomplishment drove us to this present day.

Jacobsen: Also, it was registered as an official organization, which is a first for an organization of its kind. How else is this a momentous occasion for the atheist community in Nigeria?

Igwilo: First it has given the Atheists, Secularists, Humanists and Freethinkers a sense of community backed by the law, where they can actualize their common goals, it has given them a voice which hitherto was non-existent, many never believed that this day will come. ASN wants to engage with the Nigerian community to raise awareness on why public policies, scientific inquiries and education policies should not be based on religious beliefs but rather on sound reason, rationality and evidence. This will help liberate people from superstitions and myths and promote science and technology, it will also make Nigeria a saner, safer, more sustainable place for reason and freethought.

Jacobsen: What are some initiatives underway to normalize atheism, reduce superstition, and secularize public life in Nigeria more?

Igwilo: We have started campaigning against qualified professionals that use their authority to promote superstitious practices among vulnerable Nigerians which could lead to loss of lives. A case study is our petition against the Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria about some medical doctors and healthcare professionals that refer patients to “faith healing homes” and some that support phantom miraculous healing testimonies in their places of worship giving credence to superstitious beliefs.

We also want to promote religious tolerance in Nigeria because Nigeria is grossly divided along religious lines which breeds suspicion and mistrust among the divide. Our solution is to educate the youths on various religions in Nigeria, this can be achieved by campaigning for the merging of all religious studies under a single subject of learning in secondary schools. We are making the case that Traditional Religious Knowledge, Islamic Religious Knowledge, Christian Religious Knowledge be taught as a single comparative subject of study, it will enable the students to critique religions and have an academic knowledge of various religions and help them develop critical thinking and reasoning. When they become adults, they will vote in people with rational and critical thinking into governance who will in turn make public policies that are not based on religious beliefs but on sound reason, rationality and evidence. It will be a very long drawn out campaign, we will lay the foundation now and sustain it.

Nigerian national assembly has passed some laws that breed hate and victimization against some minority citizens, we intend to mount campaign in due cause to call for repeal of those obnoxious laws that infringes on citizens fundamental human rights.

Jacobsen: How can people get involved or donate to the Atheist Society of Nigeria?

Igwilo: People can get involved with us by registering as members of Atheist Society of Nigeria though our membership registration portal on our website at www.atheist.org.ng.

We are a not-for-profit organisation and depend on donations and goodwill to carry out our programs and local development projects. We are open to donations and volunteering of time and skills to help implement our projects. For monetary donations, we have a bank account where we can receive donations, it can also be done online using credit or debit card. We also have a portal for volunteers registration on our website.

Jacobsen: Thank you for your time, Calistus.

Original publication (1 and 2) in The Good Men Project.

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